If you asked the average person who their favorite professional golfer was, who do you think they’d name? Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player are all names you’re likely to hear. Notice anything about that? None of them are women.
There’s been a long-standing myth that the name golf comes from the acronym GOLF or, Gentlemen Only Ladies Forbidden. That’s false. In fact, women have been tough competitors in the game of golf for many years.
One of those women is Marion Miley, not only one of golf’s best players but one of the best and most famous female athletes of the 1930s. In an era before women’s professional golf, at a time when the very idea of a prominent woman athlete was still unheard of, Miley won almost every important amateur championship.
Born in Philadelphia in 1914 to a golf enthusiast family, Miley learned from her father how to play the game her family held so dear. She was a natural. Almost as soon as she picked up a club, she was winning tournaments.
Over the course of her golf career, Miley won six Kentucky women’s amateur championships between 1931 and 1938. She had even beaten two of golf’s best women players at the time, Olympic gold medalist Babe Didrikson Zaharias, and 1937 national champion Estelle Lawson Page.
In short, she was one hell of a player.
Her rising career, however, came to an abrupt end in the early morning of September 28, 1941.
Tom Penney, an ex-convict, had a meeting with a buddy he met in prison, Bob Anderson, a nightclub owner, and Raymond “Skeeter” Baxter, groundskeepers at Lexington Country Club. Baxter told the two men that there was a large amount of money inside the club, at least $10,000 he told them, and that it was easy to get to.
The plan was that he would keep watch while the other two men broke inside the club, grabbed the cash, and bounced. It was an easy way to get a good chunk of change. What could go wrong?
What Baxter didn’t seem to realize, or failed to mention, was that Miley lived in an apartment above Lexington Country Club with her parents, Fred and Elsa Miley. Fred was out of town at the time, but Miley and her mother were there when Penney and Anderson broke in.
A startled Elsa gave the robbers what cash she had on her person, but the robbers weren’t satisfied. This was not the amount they expected to get. So, they shot Elsa three times in the abdomen.
Miley, being the tough young athlete she was, fought back, even viciously biting Anderson on the leg. But despite her physical means and determination, she was struck several times by the intruders and shot in the back of the head. She died instantly.
The hit was a fail, and Penney and Anderson fled. Leaving a bloodbath in their wake.
Shortly after they left, Elsa, still bleeding from her injuries, stood up and left the apartment. She pulled herself, despite her mortal wounds, to the Ben-Mar Sanitarium 500 yards away to call for help. She was taken to a nearby hospital where she later died.
The Lexington paper described the scene as a “welter of blood over the bed, walls, carpeting and floor.”
One of the first people police interviewed was a person known to sleep in the caddyshack nearby, Baxter.
“Yes, I stayed in the caddy shack last night. I often stay here when Mr. Miley is out of town. I try to protect them. Mrs. Miley was like a second mother to me.”
Investigators learned that the intruders had gained entry via the rear of the building where they switched the electric off and cut the phone wires. Very few clues were found with the exception of two buttons from a man’s coat and 3 shells from a .32-caliber auto.
Police were at a loss until paperboy Hugh Cramer came forward with a description of an unusual vehicle.
“When I bought the newspaper by the country club that morning there was a shiny new Buick parked next to the Miley’s two cars,” said Cramer. “I know their cars because I see them every day. That morning there was a new Buick. It was new and shiny and it was either blue or gray in color.”
It wasn’t long until two detectives spotted a 1940 Buick sedan with Kentucky license plates in Fort Worth, Texas. The driver was none other than Tom Penney. Under interrogation, Penney spilled all the details police needed to know. His accomplice in the robbery itself was Anderson, the owner of the 1940 Buick. And their lookout was Baxter. They had intended to rob the club when they came across the two Mileys.
Justice was swift, and by October 18th, 1941, just 10 days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, all three men were found guilty and had been sentenced to death.
Miley, who had been a local hero and rising star, slowly faded from public memory as the country descended into WWII. The girl who kicked everyone’s ass at golf was soon forgotten.
Lexington Country Club, however, never forgot about Marion Miley. There is currently a display of memorabilia, and there is an annual tournament in her name that has been played every year since 1942.
Every year, the players at Lexington Country Club are reminded of a woman who not only dominated the game of golf, but charmed the hearts of locals, impressed even the most sexist of men, and gave hope to a society that had little.
She did more than just excel at golf. She challenged the perceptions of what women could do.
Marion Miley was a rock star.